“Banding” male calves and lambs doesn’t sound that bad in a sentence. It even elicits a picture of painting a wide swath of bright color on the animals for future identification. But, ask a couple of guys to help you “band the boys” and they start to look uncomfortable and pale. Add to the mix several female friends, with a basic knowledge of animal husbandry from years ago when their kids had goats and pigs for 4-H, and you have a farm recipe for confusion with the castration process. A big word for little balls on our two weeks old calf.
I wasn’t exactly ready the morning we all came face to face with the ellastrator (the implement used to hold the band wide as you slip it over the balls). I had my three female hiking buddies and an extra husband headed out past the barn for a walk up the back ’40’ to the logging trails above. All in sneakers or hiking boots. Allen was the first to notice our male calf had become separated from his mother on the other side of the split rail fence. We had been warned early on not to get between a cow and her calf and had thus been unable, up until now, to get within 10 feet of this calf since he was born. Sort of a problem because he needed a shot and a band. Now, here he was, within easy reach…or so it seemed.
We figured, afterward, a two week old calf probably weights about 100 lbs. Even with five of us, a lariat that no one really knew how to throw, and barking, excited dogs stirring the mix, it was Greg who finally brought the calf down. He tackled it and hung on for dear life, upside down under its legs, before they both tumbled to the ground in the mud. Bull-dogging isn’t as easy as it looks at the rodeos and I think Greg was lame for a week. The calf was pretty stunned too, but not so stunned it didn’t take two guys to hold it down.
After running to the barn for my needles, my vaccine, and my ellastrator and bands, Greg and Allen pushed the calf over enough for me to look between its legs. The calf’s balls were hairier and larger than my 8 lb. lambs and I wondered if the bands would even fit. I mentioned my general concern. The guys turned their heads away; the girls moved in for a discussion.
Now, banding young animals can be a bit tricky because you need to make sure the balls are in the sack or else you will end up with a bull or a ram anyway. I usually get confused at this part since once the animal suspects what you are doing it draws everything up tight. I stretched the band wide and dropped it down. Once you remove the ellastrator the band tightens and, voila, you release your victim. Except this time, Nancy stopped me. She knelt down and started feeling the sack. Then she looked at me. “I don’t think you have anything in there,” she said. I felt around. The guys looked uncomfortable and tired.
Getting a band off to try again is harder than placing it in the first place. You need to carefully cut through the thick rubber without nicking your patient. Greg’s pocket knife was in his back pocket and unreachable as he was lying on the ground with the calf. Allen couldn’t let go his grasp of the calves hind legs so I had the dubious pleasure of reaching into my neighbor’s back pocket to find his, with his wife looking on. I started sawing carefully through the band, making everyone very nervous.
The second go-round with the ellastrator Nancy was on her knees beside me as we kneaded and dug around in this sorry calf’s abdomen. In the end, we could only be sure we had secured one ball, not two. There was some uninformed discussion about the likelihood of the calf only having one ball and then the guys had had enough. Band the damn thing and let it up to join its mother. There had been enough “ball” talk to last until next spring’s lambing season…and that I could do on my own.
The calf hopped up as if nothing had happened and soon joined his mother. We forgot about our walk. Once again an unplanned farm event had changed everyone’s daily routine. It’s not often you lie in the dirt with your neighbors, holding down livestock, feeling for balls. And, in the end, I love my neighbors for coming to our assistance, and I even love the miracle of birthing lambs and calves, but I sure wish sometimes they were all girls. There is no easy way around the balls.
(Photo of our boy calf before his life changed from bull to steer. He and his sister are called White Face, progeny from an Angus and a Hereford. For some reason, I am stuck on calling them Oreos.)
All rights reserved. Copyright Scottie Jones 2006
Who knew cows could jump four foot split rail fences? Then again, who knew our heifers wouldn’t walk over a small wooden bridge to join their calves on the other side of the creek the day they all escaped and hiked a mile up the road to our neighbor’s house? They had already blazed a trail through terrain I thought was impassable to cows. What was the big deal about a three foot bridge? Heck, why not just jump over the creek?
No, these girls took the path of least resistance as we tried to push them along the most direct route to the “barn field”, aka cow jail, where I would dare them to escape again. They jumped out of the orchard and into my flower garden, landing with cloven hooves in the middle of the hostas. Karen and Allen, our neighbors from up the road, the neighbors who had called to inform us the cows were in their backyard and who were, therefore, quickly learning the ins and outs of driving cattle (this was the second time in as many days), looked at me in surprise. I think I might have been swearing at the time.
The heifers were becoming more anxious (and dangerous) by the minute now they were in the flower garden, unfamiliar territory to them. Twelve hundred pound brown and white bovine bellowing for their babies is not a pretty sight from ground level. Where was my cow pony? Right, he was on a far pasture getting fat and not really trained for round ups amongst the roses anyway. There was no easy way out from the flower garden. All the paths were designed for people. One way led to the driveway and the road; the other had a swinging gate, maybe wide enough for a cow, but how to hold it open and not be in a direct line of two charging, wild eyed, and now mad mothers?
“Big arms! Big arms!” I yelled at my friends. What this really means is to spread your arms wide giving the impression you are bigger than you seem. If you have a stick in hand, well, even better. The peripheral vision of most farm animals allows them to take all this in and the smallest movement can effect a total change of direction. Chickens are the best for this, an irrelevant but useful factoid…if you have chickens.
Of course, we had been using big arms to start and I had even taken to ‘wapping’ the stick directly on the ground in front of one of the cows to get her to cross the bridge. When she decided to turn around and plow right past me, I tossed the stick and ducked behind a tree. Big arms are, after all, only the illusion of strength and size.
And then, it was over. The gate was held as wide as possible, the girls escaped the garden, crashed across the creek to within nose distance of their calves, another gate was opened, some pushing and herding, cow jail was achieved. As we walked back up the road to Karen and Allen’s house to collect my car, I thanked them for all their help, starting with the original, apologetic phone call as I was heading out the door to the dentist, “Did I know my cows were in their back yard…again?” At least canceling a dentist appointment due to escaped cows is not seen as a “dog ate my homework” excuse around here.
And, the leaping lamb part of the story? While I never knew cows could jump, I was also not aware that lambs at play have this wonderful and hilarious way of running and leaping in the air, all four hooves off the ground at once. I have tried to capture this movement in photos, to show my more urban friends and family what I mean, with little success. Leaping lambs are the manifestation of an unexpected lightness of spirit we can all appreciate. They represent childhood and innocence and a carefree existence and they make us smile. Karen and Allen helped me out with the cows that day because they are good neighbors, but maybe also because you never know when you might just see a leaping lamb somewhere on the farm, and then, who cares if the cows jumped over the fence.
(This is a photo of Peter Rabbit, a bummer lamb from our spring crop. A bummer is a lamb that has been abandoned by his mother. I became his surrogate mama, with a fresh serving of formula every four hours for the first several weeks!)
All rights reserved. Copyright Scottie Jones 2006